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The Mantra of Efficiency

From Waterwheel to Social Control

Jennifer Karns Alexander

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Winner, 2010 Edelstein Prize, Society for the History of Technology

Efficiency—associated with individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits or productivity—often counts as one of the highest virtues in Western culture. But what does it mean, exactly, to be efficient? How did this concept evolve from a means for evaluating simple machines to the mantra of progress and a prerequisite for success?

In this provocative and ambitious study, Jennifer Karns Alexander explores the growing power of efficiency in the post-industrial West. Examining the ways the concept has appeared in…

Winner, 2010 Edelstein Prize, Society for the History of Technology

Efficiency—associated with individual discipline, superior management, and increased profits or productivity—often counts as one of the highest virtues in Western culture. But what does it mean, exactly, to be efficient? How did this concept evolve from a means for evaluating simple machines to the mantra of progress and a prerequisite for success?

In this provocative and ambitious study, Jennifer Karns Alexander explores the growing power of efficiency in the post-industrial West. Examining the ways the concept has appeared in modern history—from a benign measure of the thermal economy of a machine to its widespread application to personal behaviors like chewing habits, spending choices, and shop floor movements to its controversial use as a measure of the business success of American slavery—she argues that beneath efficiency's seemingly endless variety lies a common theme: the pursuit of mastery through techniques of surveillance, discipline, and control.

Six historical case studies—two from Britain, one each from France and Germany, and two from the United States—illustrate the concept's fascinating development and provide context for the meanings of, and uses for, efficiency today and in the future.

Reviews

Reviews

This concise, scholarly study will not only encourage reflective analysis of historical events but also offer insight into potential future applications and change.

Alexander skillfully interprets a broad spectrum of sources spanning three centuries, three languages, and several academic disciplines. She packs a wealth of information into a slim and readable volume, carefully exploring the nuances of each case without straying too far from the central focus on efficiency's intellectual heritage.

A thought provoking study... Widens our understanding of how ideas of efficiency began, how efficiency has been experienced in different historical circumstances.

A very provocative book.

An ambitious book that... largely succeeds.

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About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
256
ISBN
9780801886935
Illustration Description
8 halftones, 2 line drawings
Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction: The Varieties of Efficiency
1. Static and Dynamic Efficiency: The Waterwheels of Smeaton and the Franklin Institute
2. The Effects of Control

List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction: The Varieties of Efficiency
1. Static and Dynamic Efficiency: The Waterwheels of Smeaton and the Franklin Institute
2. The Effects of Control: Gérard-Joseph Christian and Perfected Machines
3. Economy of Nature: Darwin, Marshall, and the Costs of Efficiency
4. Balance and Transformation: Technical and Popular Efficiency in the Progressive Era United States
5. An Island of Mechanical Predictability: Efficient Worker Seating in Late Weimar Germany
6. Pride in Efficiency: The Dispute over Time on the Cross
7. Global Efficiency: An Enduring Industrial Value in a Postindustrial World
Conclusion: The Future of Efficiency
Notes
Bibliographic Essay
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Jennifer Karns Alexander, Ph.D.

Jennifer Karns Alexander is an associate professor in the Program in History of Science, Technology, and Medicine and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota.